The G20 summit, held in Delhi on September 9 and 10, 2023, attracted much attention across the world. But in Islamabad, the feeling was that being lonely and left out.
Some foreign policy experts are underplaying the role of the summit, while others are criticising Pakistan's foreign policy. After reading the final communiqué carefully, I will attempt to analyse what the G20 means and can mean for Pakistan.
G20, the group of 20 industrialised and developing countries, originally consisted of 19 countries and the European Union. The 55-member bloc of the African nations, the African Union, joined the G20 as a permanent member at the Delhi summit, increasing the total membership to 21. However, the group will still be referred to as the G20.
G20 started in 2009 in the aftermath of a series of financial crises gripping the world. Many believe the group challenges the post-World War II financial order led by the US. But G20, initiated by the developed states of G7, mainly Germany and the US, was intended to bring the many new emerging economies into the international financial system, not replace it. It was proposed because new economies were rising, and the then prevailing structures were inadequate to manage the global financial system.
G20 is basically an organisation of finance ministers of the member states, with summits of heads of constituent states as an annual feature. The G20 members include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Türkiye, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union. Some non-member states are also invited to the summit. The United Nations, the World Bank and ASEAN are regular participants. The G20 presidency rotates annually among members. India holds the current presidency. It is to be followed by fellow BRICS member Brazil.
Though focused on economics and finance, the G20 does not always stay clear of politics. It is not a bloc that can implement decisions. It was never intended to be one, as it does not have a permanent secretariat. A temporary secretariat is established in the country that holds the presidency for the year.
The G20 may lack the capacity to implement decisions, yet its decisions carry a lot of weight – they reflect a consensus among countries that hold 80 percent of world gross production and 75 percent of the world's trade. The consensus requirement probably also results in weakness as most decisions are a compromise to address the concerns and policies of quite a diverse group. One can imagine the path to securing consensus among the states would be littered with having them at the loggerheads, such as the US, China and Russia, among others.
India hosting the summit without the presence of Chinese President XI and Russian President Putin, is viewed in Pakistan as India's loss rather than a diplomatic achievement
At the Delhi summit, two issues stood out: one, the words chosen to address the Ukraine conflict, and two, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman's (MBS) announcement of the India, Middle East and Europe economic corridor.
India was successful in avoiding a condemnation of Russia as an aggressor state. It was further able to influence the western states, including the US, which was represented by President Joe Biden himself. Further, the announcement of the economic corridor is a major win for the states involved. Though there are a few voices questioning the economic viability of the announced route, its geopolitical significance cannot be denied.
The corridor will have regional and international impact. Most experts are viewing it as an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and, thus, a major success for the US and India. But looking at the complexities of the new international geopolitics, the possibility of the new economic corridor converging rather than replacing the BRI must not be ruled out. As of now, it seems India has been able to keep both Russia and the US happy – and curtail China at the same time. Chinese President Xi Jinping's decision to not attend the summit has been underplayed in the process.
The fact that India hosted the summit without the presence of either President XI or President Vladimir Putin is viewed in Pakistan as India's loss rather than a diplomatic achievement.
Despite the announcement of the economic corridor by MBS at the Delhi Summit, relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan will continue as normal. Saudi Arabia's current foreign policy framework enables her to maintain cordial ties with the US and China – and also Iran. It also enables the state to keep relations with India and Pakistan. Pakistan needs investment and monetary support, not weapons, from Saudi Arabia. Saudis will extend the required support to Pakistan and, at the same time, cultivate relations with India.
There is an imaginary map doing the rounds on social media, showing how long and impractical the route is. There is also a map showing how convenient and short the India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Europe route can be. They miss two points: one, it is not just about Indian trade with Europe, but trade between India, the Middle East and Europe. Trade is expected to flow to and from all the places along the route. Pakistan has not allowed trade between India, Central Asia and Afghanistan through its lands. Therefore, the big question is, will Pakistan allow its territory to be used for trade between India and Europe?
So, what are the opportunities for Pakistan post-G20 summit? Pakistan, rather than reacting negatively to the economic corridor, must explore how to be a part of it. Pakistan can gain tremendously from such a possibility. However, India, under the Narendra Modi government, which believes Pakistan has been cornered, may not be welcoming to the idea of including Pakistan in the economic route. But, still, Pakistan can use its relations with Saudi Arabia and the US to that end. Pakistan has acknowledged that it has an opportunity to develop a foreign policy on the basis of geo-economics. China will welcome such a move. The Chinese will see the new corridor in conjunction with the BRI.
Given the country's economic as well as political crisis, Pakistan is unlikely to follow this path. Pakistani ruling mindset is intellectually incapable of any fundamental change. Those opposed to the current arrangements will view such a move as a sell-out.
At present, it is impossible to expect the opposition to understand foreign policy needs and not engage in political point-scoring.